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February 1, 2021

Te-Ping Chen's Playlist for Her Story Collection "Land of Big Numbers"

Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Te-Ping Chen's collection Land of Big Numbers is a sharp and nuanced portrayal of modern China.

Esquire wrote of the book:

"Remarkable...Unfolds across the modern Chinese diaspora, pinballing between acutely observed realism and tragicomic magical realism...Each haunting, exquisitely crafted story poses powerful questions about freedom, disillusion, and cultural thought, firmly establishing Chen as an emerging visionary to watch."

In her words, here is Te-Ping Chen's Book Notes music playlist for her story collection Land of Big Numbers:

Writing Land of Big Numbers felt a bit like making a mixtape. As a kid in the nineties, I have so many memories of hearing a song on the car radio, coming home and dashing in to try and hit ‘record’ before it was through. Sometimes you caught just the last precious 30 seconds, other times you'd end up accidentally recording part of a commercial. You'd record, rewind and re-record, trying to come up with the exact right alchemy of pop, lyrics and pathos to give to a friend, or a crush.

From noodle-making robots to subway dramas and ex-boyfriends calling you on the job, Land of Big Numbers is me trying to sample and mix and capture glimpses of a world that I felt lucky to witness and participate in while living in Beijing, first as a student, and later as a reporter. Some of these songs contain snippets of my life then, others evoke the themes of the book, which straddles both the U.S. and China. Enjoy!

Dean Martin, On the Street Where You Live

I've always loved this song -- how the singer's longing gilds the mundane -- and it was a joy to work it into one of the book's stories. In a story that shares this song's title, a highly urbane, educated immigrant living in Atlantic City, NJ falls in love with a local girl and ends up moving into the apartment where she'd once lived. It's a one-sided romance, full of yearning and distorted perception and -- in the end -- violence, one narrated by a character who's fascinated by old Hollywood glamor and loves show tunes like this one.

Radiohead, Idioteque

A long-dormant dream of mine is to make a music video in China that features this song. There's something about the hypnotic, undulating beat and feeling of industrial machinery and history at work that immediately makes me think of the country. I have seen too much I haven't seen enough / You haven't seen it / Women and children first. I picture black-and-white footage of parades during the Cultural Revolution, assembly lines and things being torn down and built again. I would love to see someone speed up and mix those clips and intersperse them with some really good dance choreography. Spoiler alert, alas, the person with those skills is not me.

Lord Huron, The Night We Met

I first heard this song while driving through Arizona, a trip that inspired one of the book's stories, "Beautiful Country," about two people on a road trip to the Grand Canyon. They're in a long-term relationship, but one that's been stuck in place. The main character has found another woman's lipstick in her long-time lover's car, and is trying to talk herself out of what she thinks it means. This song, and the way it captures that potent mixture of regret and nostalgia, still reliably gives me chills.

Tracey Thorn, Oh the Divorces

This is a song from an album by Tracey Thorn, one she describes as being "about the person I am now and the people around me...about real life after forty." Many of the characters in Land of Big Numbers are young, but others are dealing very much with the challenges of middle age -- growing old with the knowledge they haven't accomplished what they want to yet, being in marriages that have lost steam. Here, I appreciate that Thorn’s addressing some of the hard, less glamorous experiences that are part of life, not just the ones that come with being young and in love. (Has anyone written the musical equivalent of Office Space yet?)

Beyond, 海闊天空

"Under the Vast Sky," an old rock ballad by Hong Kong band Beyond, became a kind of protest anthem during the city’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution, when thousands of protesters took to the streets for months, resisting tear gas and police force to demand more political freedom. After I came back from reporting on those protests, the song kept repeating in my head. I last heard it played in public in 2018, not long before I left China. One night when I was biking home from work, I heard someone blasting it at the subway intersection near my apartment. I don't know if it was being played merely as a pop song or if there was any political message there. By that point, Hong Kong's civil liberties were even more under assault, though nothing compared to the crackdown the city is now experiencing.

Kenny G, Going Home

When I was living in China, this song was ubiquitous. It was played at shopping malls, restaurants and train stations, and was always used to signal that it was closing time. I have no idea how Kenny G's song became so inescapable, but it was as universal a cultural touchstone in China as a song like 'Happy Birthday.' Others have also been baffled by its popularity, including Kenny G himself.

It reminds me of another saxophone-related phenomenon that always perplexed me -- the fact that in China, Santa Claus is so often depicted playing that particular instrument. (I once tried to get to the bottom of this question while on a reporting trip, to no avail.) Mysteries!

CCTV, Xinwen Lianbo Theme Music

Every night in the Wall Street Journal's bureau, we'd listen to the 7 o'clock news segment aired by the Chinese state broadcaster, CCTV. Often it was anodyne, but occasionally major announcements were made, and meanwhile it was a useful daily window into the kind of top-down messaging being conveyed. Its opening jingle never varied, and for the rest of my life, it will inspire an instant Pavlovian reaction of wanting to finish off that last languishing cup of tea at my desk, to start closing windows on my computer and simultaneously glance up at the TV and wonder for the umpteenth time what kind of hair dye China's politicians use. Following state media is a major part of most reporters' lives in Beijing, and not surprisingly, such propaganda makes cameos throughout the book.

Chopin, Nocturne Op. 15, No. 1 in F

I was listening to Chopin's Nocturnes a lot during the period I was writing Land of Big Numbers, and these songs immediately transport me back to the feeling of early mornings in Beijing, wrapped in a blanket on a couch when it was still dark outside. If I wrote enough, I would treat myself to the pleasure of going back to sleep, and I'd drift in and out to the sound of this music until it was time to start the day.

Ani DiFranco, As Is

A song about seeing flaws, having no illusions and still managing to find love and contentment, and a favorite of mine from high school. It's a love song, but I think it applies equally well to relationships writ large, or a country, to a way of seeing the world. The characters in Land of Big Numbers are often living in highly constrained circumstances, but my favorites are the one who see their lives and their limitations, and choose to embrace them anyway.

Te-Ping Chen's fiction has been published in, or is forthcoming from, The New Yorker, Granta, Guernica, Tin House, and The Atlantic. A reporter with the Wall Street Journal, she was previously a correspondent for the paper in Beijing and Hong Kong. Prior to joining the Journal in 2012, she spent a year in China as a Fulbright fellow. She lives in Philadelphia.

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